BWW Review: THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE at Barrington Stage Company
One person's duty is another person's delight
The Pirates of Penzance is possibly the most popular comic operetta and its history of adoration has been consistent since its premier in 1879. Revivals of The Pirates of Penzance were ubiquitous throughout the 20th Century with Joseph Papp's production in 1980 becoming the most lauded. This version featured new musical arrangements which pulled the operetta closer to musical theatre, making it accessible for contemporary audiences all while remaining respectful to the original version. Other adaptators have tried their hands only to fall short. Pirates (or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder'd) was a failed experiment that set the story in the caribbean and transformed the Pirate King into a pseudo-Captain Jack Sparrow.
Barrington Stage Company has thankfully selected Joseph Papp's version and it's now under the excellent direction of John Rando. Rando works comfortably in bringing the classics back with productions feeling as fresh to an audience today as it must have felt for an audience during the original run. All the comedy bits synonymous with Pirates of Penzance are featured here; the Pirate King's swinging entrance, running jokes with the conductor, and milking the audience for encores. Rando enhances it all by dropping the mad-cap energy into our laps and fills the aisles with sword fighting, somersaulting and crawling.
The Pirates of Penzance follows a 21 year old named Frederic who has finished up his apprenticeship with the gang of tender-hearted pirates and wants to set out into the world to find love. His nursemaid, Ruth intends to marry Frederic and ensures him she is the picture of beauty. (Frederic has never laid eyes on another woman.) Frederic meets Mabel, one of Major General Stanley's daughters, and quickly learns what true beauty looks like. The two instantly fall in love and a tiff forms between the pirates, who want to keep Frederic as theirs, and Mgr. General, who rebukes the idea of having a pirate son-in-law. Cue the shenanigans.
Remarkably, the journey of W.S. Gilbert's libretto is thin by today's standards. The entire musical unfolds in a day and the action is mostly frivolous. Such shallow waters could cast disastrous fate for this ship. Luckily, Rando's assembly of an enthusiastic cast keeps the draft of the ship at safe levels. Will Swenson (The Pirate King) pulls from a seemingly bottomless bag of screwball tricks and hits each of them with precision. Likewise for the flamboyant crew of pirates. The nine men are shrewdly cast as varying shapes and sizes to give us a gang of multidimensional pirates. The men also double as a brigade of police, lead by a fantastic Alex Gibson (Sergeant). Act two's standout comes in the form of "When A Felon's Not Engaged in His Employment" which features Joshua Bergasse's delightful boy band inspired choreography.
The daughters of Major General are charming and are cast with the same nuances as the men. This may be the first time I've ever known Major General to have twins! Scarlett Strallen's soaring soprano invents notes and makes a perfect pair to Kyle Dean Massey's prettyboy Frederic. Darren R. Cohen's musical direction delivered a cast fully equipped to tackle the challenging pitter-patter speech. David Garrison's "I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General" earns his encore. Sullivan's lush nautical score is reduced to eight members in the orchestra and is the only notable loss in this production.
It's hard to rival Gilbert and Sullivan's success in writing an operetta as old as the incandescent light bulb yet still remains prevalent on the american stage today. The Pirates of Penzance is the bridge between traditional opera and contemporary musical theatre. Fortunately for us, The Pirates of Penzance at Barrington Stage Company is a sturdy bridge that shines bright with entertaining whimsy and charm.